SEOUL — ; Police in northeastern China near the border with North Korea are involved in human-trafficking, selling starving North Korean women who cross the border looking for food, a North Korean defector told RFA's Korean service.
Ki-sook Lee, 43, was born in Moosan, North Hamgyung Province of North Korea, and forcibly repatriated twice before finally settling in South Korea.
"When I first went to Yanbian, China, with my husband to get some rice in return for our labor, I was almost sold by Chinese policemen," Lee said in an interview. "Chinese policemen sell young North Korean women for money... to older Koreans or Chinese men who haven't gotten married. I know the details by experience. It happened to me too," she said.
"There was a police station that guards the border," Lee said. "And the police there were the ones who sell, for a couple of thousand yuan, those hungry North Korean women to unmarried Chinese men."
She said the incident had occurred in 1996 or 1997 when she was working on a farm. "While we were sleeping one night, Chinese policemen came into the room all of sudden. I thought they were capturing North Korean escapees. But the police only took women who were sleeping in a different room. And that is how I got to Hailong City."
"When I was thrown into the street in Haryong, I saw taxis waiting for us, not military vehicles. And I realized this is not about North Korea defection. Those policemen in uniform were selling us, not handing us to North Korean government," Lee said.
Lee was taken about 100 kms from the Tumen border crossing to Hailong, where she was given pretty clothes to wear and asked her age and other details. "They discussed the price on me in their language," she said.
Lee managed to escape on a trip to the bathroom, with the apparent acquiescence of a Korean guard. Later, she found herself thrown into a prison camp after complaining about her treatment to the border guards' superiors. "If I just stayed quiet about what happened, I could have been safe. But I was so angry at what happened that I reported it," she said.
"I said, 'People get worried even if their pets or livestock go out of the house and do not come back for a long time. But we are people. Chinese people must not sell their workers even if they are North Koreans.'"
"If North Koreans disappear, there is no legal obligation to find them in China. To make matters worse, when a Chinese family reports missing North Koreans, the families get charged a fine for hiding North Koreans," Lee said.
As many as 300,000 North Koreans are believed to live in hiding in China, where they frequently suffer abuse and exploitation.
Under a U.N. refugee convention, China is obliged to not force defectors back to North Korea, where they face punishment, torture, and humiliation, according to human rights observers. The punishment for defecting is three years in a labor camp and can lead to torture and execution, both for the defectors and their families.